Five Ways to Create a Sensory Garden for the Visually Impaired

Little Girl Smelling a Peony

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;          
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush          
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring          
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; — Gerard Manley Hopkins
Written in May 1877, but unpublished until 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet “Spring” captures the season of rebirth as perfectly today as it did then. Indeed, spring has a way of bringing us joy and enlivening our senses. Those who are blind or visually impaired may not be able to fully appreciate colors and landscape design, but sensory gardens offer them a unique and enchanting way to experience nature and engage their other four senses.

According to Jackie Carroll of Gardening Know, “A garden for the blind, or for those with diminished sight, is one that appeals to all the senses without overwhelming them. In fact, garden plants for visually impaired individuals include those that can be touched, smelled, tasted, or even heard.” Here are some important considerations when designing a sensory garden for blind or VI people:

Safety and easy navigation are critical when designing a garden for blind or VI individuals. Carroll recommends garden design include “straight pathways and landmarks…[changes] in walkway texture… Railings, says Carroll, “should accompany any change in topography and begin a few feet before inclines or declines.” When selecting plants for the garden avoid prickly or thorny bushes and flowers. Poisonous plants should also be avoided since they could be accidentally ingested, or could cause reactions such as poison ivy and poison oak.

It goes without saying that fragrance is a critically important aspect of sensory gardens. But it’s important to choose scents carefully. Over-powering fragrances may be unpleasant for a blind or VI person with a heightened sensitivity to odors. Used selectively, fragrance helps visually impaired individuals find their way around the garden and of course — provides a pleasurable olfactory experience. Planet Natural suggests “a combination of scents that range from subtle to more intense… to produce the greatest variety and interest. Plants to consider for their scent include honeysuckle, lavender, violets, mint, and chocolate cosmos, which release a chocolate-like scent.”

Incorporate auditory elements to the sensory garden with wind chimes and water features such as trickling fountains and birdbaths that attract the lovely sound of chirping birds. Master gardener Susan Patterson suggests choosing “plant flora that makes noise when the wind passes through them, such as bamboo stems. Many seedpods make interesting sounds as well, and the end of season leaves provide a fun crunching sound under feet,” adds Patterson. “You can also include plants that encourage wildlife in the garden. The buzzing of a bee, the chirping of a cricket or the whizzing of a hummingbird all stimulates the sense of hearing.”

Sensory gardens offer a wonderful opportunity for tactile exploration. Plants and flowers with interesting textures include pussy willow, wooly thyme, chenille and hyacinth. Some plants such as scented geranium, release their scents when they are touched. For example, geraniums, lemon balm and mint.

Edible flowers add another sensory dimension to the garden. Examples from Planet Natural include “nasturtiums, evening primrose, hibiscus, and pansy.” Berries, fruit trees, vegetables, herbs and spices are another great addition. When planting edible flowers, fruits, herbs and spices, take care to place them in an area that’s distinct from the rest of the garden. This is particularly important for VI or blind people who may not be able to distinguish between edible and inedible plants.